I came here in a time machine from the nineteen-eighties, when everything was clear. The Threat was the cold war, which was unambiguously a bad thing, and The Enemy Within was either Thatcher or Scargill, right or left, according to political affiliation. [Thatcher was winning the landslide elections, but.] Television was fighting at Orgreave Colliery, and in the cinema, we were somewhere between Blade Runner (1982), E.T. (1982), WarGames (1983) and Ghostbusters (1984). Oh, and we all knew what not to do with Gremlins (1984) after midnight. Talking Heads released Stop Making Sense; Bruce Springsteen released Born In The USA (first CD manufactured in the USA); the Eurovision Song Context was won by the Herreys singing Diggi-Loo Diggi-Ley.
And then history ended* and time did a series of U-turns. Today, with the digital read-out saying April 2018, we’re past (almost**) all those time loops – Back to the Future’s future was 2015, Skynet did its thing in 1997, while 2001: A Space Odyssey was just a little optimistic (and am I right to remember trimphones in Space 1999?). Oh, and let’s remember Timecop (1994), in which the future is located in 2004. It’s as if we’ve travelled on past the future. And if you’ll allow me to channel Christopher Lloyd’s “slightly mad scientist” (IMdb) from Back to the Future for a moment – of course! This must be the remake of the past!
Remake, reboot, not sure of the difference. But look at the evidence. We’ve had the Blade Runner and Ghostbusters remakes (reboots) already this year; Tomb Raider has just been released – again – and there’s a listing on IMdb for Gremlins 3 (updated July 2017). And – I don’t believe this (yes, I do) – there’s a WarGames TV series due later this year. Read this. In politics, Trump seems to be remaking Nixon in China***, but with North Korea, and in place of Orgreave, we’ve got Brexit. A lot of indignation, lots of passionate denunciation, but this time round, no actual blood spilled.
Talking Heads’ David Byrne released American Utopia this year; Bruce Springsteen’s putting out The Album Collection Vol. 2 in May (and currently performing on Broadway); the Eurovision Song Contest 2017 was won by Salvador Sobral singing Amar Pelos Dois. All very familiar, and sometimes I ask myself: did I actually travel? Or is this still 1984 but in a parallel universe? I know that I’ve gone somewhere – or somewhen, cue spooky music – because The Threat has mutated. There’s no longer a big, external Us vs. Them situation; we’ve internalised it somehow, made it our own: women objecting to men; populists objecting to elites and vice-versa; everybody objecting to Trump. All real, but now, simultaneously an abstraction. Or perhaps, our opposition to The Threat has somehow become insubstantial: Trump got elected; Brexit is happening; heterosexual marriage is still legal. How come? We’re collectively against things that somehow find mass support.
It was easy, back in ’84. There was good and bad and brave – you were brave if you were unconventional because it cost you something. Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series, which began publication in novel form in 1978 (Harper & Row), not only addressed AIDS, but also the then-difficult subject of coming out as gay. Search for Michael Tolliver’s letter. No, be strong and do it yourself. I just added a colour, not a link. These days, there’s a ghost of that bravery in the defiant tone of people coming out as – some version of pretty much mainstream-different, actually, conventionally idiosyncratic, but with a filter on the Facebook profile pic to signal their allegiance to whatever cause we’re all supporting these days. Why take a stand if we’re with you already? Was it the long-ago TV critic of the FT, Chris Dunkley, who came up with the phrase “standing up to be counted long after everybody else has sat down” in a review? I think it was. We’d call it a meme these days; the phrase stuck in my head at the time and I still remember it (yes, I think I did first read it in the nineteen-eighties).
I no longer have my ancient paperback copy of Ken Grimwood’s fantasy novel Replay (1986, Arbour House), but if I remember the plot rightly, the narrator relives a big chunk of his life every time he dies – like the later film Groundhog Day (1993) but with multiple decades instead of one day. After living his life several times over, he suddenly notices an anomaly – a well-known event hasn’t happened this time, or something else isn’t how he remembers it, and the plot kicks up a gear – could we get some more of that spooky music here, please? As I say, I no longer have the book, but on a side-impulse from the writing of this post, I did the analogue thing and went down to Bookmark in Arwenack Street to order a second-hand copy. [Younger readers: “second-hand” is the same as “pre-loved” but without the silly emotional nudge.]
No screens were consulted in the ordering of this book. By me, at least. Bookmark’s attic was searched – actual attic, not database; no copy in stock. The book will be here on Monday, and when I pick it up, hold it in my hands, turn pages, I’ll feel that I’ve, I don’t know, reconnected with the world that was. I remember enjoying that book. The action happens in our reality, but the narrator suddenly realises, for example, that this time round, Peachtree haven’t launched the T-Connect, and the film Sky Song (1977) has been replaced by something called Star Wars. Timeline: totally messed up. Plot: interesting. The narrator's not the only time traveller hiding in plain sight. I used to go into bookshops and buy/order books in the past, so at least that detail hasn’t changed. Although the internet’s a bit of a surprise this time round.
Wait a minute. This isn’t the future at all, is it? And I'm not exactly back where I started. Has The Matrix (1999) blown a fuse? Now, that would be a blog post.
*Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (1992, Free Press). The long-term trend is for democracy to prevail as a system of government. Discuss.
**Inconveniently for my main argument, the original Blade Runner looked ahead to 2019. Which would you prefer – the urban sprawl and the off-world colonies, or Brexit? The remake, Blade Runner 2049, is unusual in that it pushes the future out even further – although I suppose in that respect it’s just redoing what the original did.
*Nixon in China by John Adams, 1987. Back in the eighties, we had operas based on foreign-policy initiatives. Beat that with a tweet.
So begins Teller’s final chapter, in which he aims to “investigate why disasters should lead to improvement, and improvement should paradoxically foster discontent”. Tenner’s point through the book, briefly and in my words, is that we’re good at progress, good at reacting to disasters, good at innovating solutions, et cetera, but incapable of avoiding the “revenge effects” whereby each solution goes on to impose its own challenges. Teller writes: “Technology demands more, not less, human work to function. And it introduces more subtle and insidious problems to replace acute ones.” Cars don’t break down so much, but we can’t fix them at the roadside when they do.
I think “revenge effects” is a more precise term than “unintended consequences”. We are indeed living “the safer life” in many respects, and perhaps the problems we face are indeed “more subtle” than those faced by our ancestors – although we’ve faced some pretty unsubtle disasters as well, since the turn of the century. One of Tenner’s examples is “the rediscovery of chronic illness”. We may have worked out how to prevent a “multitude of deaths from infectious disease in middle age”, but those deaths “undoubtedly concealed many chronic conditions” that are now faced by the survivors.
That’s a precise “revenge effect”. But Tenner remains cheerful. In one of his several chapters on “the computerised office”, Tenner writes, from the perspective of 1996: “There is a brilliant, well-supported argument that we are actually in the early stages of a more fundamental revolution.” Yes. But from the perspective of 2018, I enjoyed adding the italics to this sentence: “Software can devour highly complex tasks with ease if they fit well into its existing categories.” Notice the word “well” there. We’ve all encountered AS*, brother of the more famous AI. By then, Tenner’s arguing that replacing the “old ways” with technology doesn’t simplify a task; it “recomplicates” it in different ways.
Read the book. Tenner’s conclusion is an argument for vigilance – “constant monitoring of the globe, for everything from changes in mean temperatures and particulates to traffic in bacteria and viruses” alongside personal vigilance. We’ll be okay, right? We’re vigilant, and when we spot something like global warming, polar ice melting, social media undermining democracy, viruses taking down banks, health services, global networks, we can Harness The Power Of Technology to sort it out, right? Right?
The final sentence of Tenner’s book ends with the words: “…reality is indeed gaining on us.”
*Artificial Stupidity. No, come on, you know what I mean. Watch Amber Case on YouTube, arguing for “calm technology”. Some of her examples of the other kind.